As mainstream American cinema continues to bend the knee to franchise entertainment and IP service, and the types of adult-oriented dramas which would a decade ago at least receive a polite two or three theatrical releases per studio per year increasingly migrate to streaming services, contemporary nonfiction moviemaking continues to boom, and make inroads with mass audiences.
In the earlier days of the pandemic, before it took its much grimmer turn, it seemed like Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness (okay, and possibly bread-making) was going to be the only thing to bring the United States together. The true crime docu-series, seemingly all anyone could talk about for two weeks, was a cultural sensation — so much so that Netflix quickly cranked out an extra after-show special hosted by Joel McHale. No longer necessitating the type of personality-driven framing which helped fuel the careers of filmmakers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock (and, to a much lesser extent, auteurs like Werner Herzog and Errol Morris), the documentary scene is rich and multi-varied, as a quintet of very interesting new DVD releases from Kino Lorber attests.
First up is Whirlybird, which tells the story of two Los Angeles reporters whose rule-bending doggedness helped change the nature of modern breaking news coverage, for better or worse. Their names may not be well-known nationally, but some of their footage most certainly is. Bob Tur (now Zoey Tur) was a college dropout subsisting on grab-as-grab-can footage (not unlike Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler character) when he met Marika Gerrard, and introduced her to his particular brand of adrenalized news chasing, informed by police scanner updates and a willfully antagonistic attitude. She became Bob’s partner, professionally and personally (they married when he was 20), and two children (including future NBC News correspondent Katy Tur) would follow.
Tidy domesticity wasn’t in Bob’s nature, however. He founded “L.A. News Service,” an independent contractor which syndicated video material to various Los Angeles news stations, and he and Marika embraced a 24-7 lifestyle which found them frequently taking their kids with them. Scraping together $50,000 to purchase a helicopter represented the next logical progression of Bob’s aggressive “If it bleeds, it leads” sensibility, and soon the Turs were a brand almost unto themselves. Whirlybird jointly chronicles the duo’s professional and personal lives, inextricably linked and of course always captured on film. Working with this abundance of footage, director Matt Yoka crafts a highly watchable movie that exists at the intersection of juicy human interest story and a deeper rumination on the voyeuristic nature of consumers, though leaning more heartily in the direction of the former.
The first to use a helicopter to cover breaking news, and the first to televise a high-speed police chase, Tur was something of a paradox — a highly successful and award-winning journalist who was also a bit of a pariah, never able to sustain contract exclusivity not merely because of his highly independent nature, but because of his impulsivity, risk-taking, and emotional volatility. On one end of the spectrum was his live coverage of the attack on Reginald Denny during the 1992 Los Angeles riots (footage that helped bring the perpetrators to justice), and being the first to locate and broadcast O.J. Simpson’s slow-speed pursuit on June 17, 1994. On the other end were the rages, irrationality, and emotional bullying which contributed to competitors working silently to hire away his team from underneath him, as well as his personal life imploding. The Tur’s marriage ended in 2003, and 10 years later Zoey came out as transgender, traveling abroad to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Whirlybird does a good job of unpacking all this, telling a rich story and exploring the interrelatedness of all the traits which made Tur “good” (by many metrics) at her job, but also a difficult person with whom to work and live. Still, Tur is a tough subject to interrogate — not self-pitying, exactly, but also not perhaps open to a deeper evaluation of the true societal impact of her work. “These people are not people,” Tur famously said while narrating the brutal footage of Denny’s beating. Despite scoring high in fascination for current events and social history junkies, Whirlybird also shows us that while Tur has done a lot of interpersonal inventorying, self-reflection on her contribution to the public perception and “othering” of so many of her subjects hasn’t necessarily occurred. The film’s DVD 1.78:1 widescreen presentation — whose lack of supplemental extras, no big deal on most documentaries, feel especially like a missed opportunity here given the sociopolitical richness of the material — comes with 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo audio tracks, plus optional SDH English subtitles.
As environmentalism has matured and evolved, the language surrounding it has changed. The movement has also been more diligent in striving to connect itself to everyday consumer choices. “Sustainability” and “local-sourcing” weren’t part of the vernacular when I first heard or read about Earth Day, but Fish & Men, a documentary which examines the high cost of cheap fish, puts them under the microscope.
Directed by Darby Duffin and Adam Jones, the movie reveals how consumer demand for five species has led to the United States importing 91 percent of its seafood. Despite America’s vast coastlines, seafood is also revealed to often be among the least local food options, with massive amounts of oceanic biomass vacuumed up by commercial trawlers, frozen and sent overseas for processing, and then shipped back Stateside to be sold. Then there’s whole issue of fish farms, and the unsanitary conditions that infect fish with everything from diseases to micro-plastics and other toxins. If it sounds like it’s enough to steal one’s appetite, you’re not entirely wrong.
There have been plenty of movies over the last several years purporting to examine food chain sustainability, by way of its relationship to pollution and overconsumption, and many of these efforts (from 8 Billion Angels to the recent Eating Our Way to Extinction, the latter narrated by Kate Winslet) struggle to make a connection with viewers. Some can’t quite commit to disruption, offering up seemingly pat air-quote solutions; others unfold in such a jumbled haze and blitz of terrorizing statistics as to end up providing no hope.
Fish & Men does a nice job of striking a balance in its storytelling and social mission. A big part of the film’s aim is to lift up and celebrate the type of small and local fishermen so integral to feeding their communities for many generations. But Fish & Men also aims to perhaps introduce consumers to new varieties of seafood, and expand their palates beyond salmon, tuna, tilapia, and shrimp, by way of the work of imaginative, pioneering chefs. These very human stories live alongside the more expected, despairing narrative elements, and the overall result is a movie that is eye-opening and alarming, yes, but lands at just the right level of disquiet, if that makes sense. The DVD release features a 16×9 widescreen presentation with a 2.0 stereo audio track.
Chasing Madoff throws a light on the $60 billion Ponzi scheme of crooked investment broker and former chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange Bernie Madoff. The subject matter — the largest act of financial fraud in the history of the world — is the chief selling point here, and it’s undeniably riveting. But in jointly telling the story of Madoff as well as securities analyst Harry Markopolos and his team of investigators (the former of whom would uncover evidence of Madoff’s malfeasance eight-plus years before it was reported in 2008, and try unsuccessfully to get federal authorities to take action), this documentary struggles a bit, stumbling at times with a woefully misguided reliance on hammy recreations and a need to bend over backwards to pat Markopolos (upon whose New York Times bestselling book No One Would Listen the film is based) on the back. Still, if one can look past these hiccups, though, there’s plenty herein to shake one’s head at in awe — the movie is a passionately articulated silver bullet against the hollow arguments of rampant financial market deregulation. The DVD release features a 16×9 widescreen presentation with 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo audio tracks, and optional English SDH subtitles. In addition to the film’s trailer and a slightly alternate ending, there are a clutch of deleted scenes, as well as a feature-length audio commentary track from director Jeff Prosserman in which he details the enormous amount of research he did to bring himself up to speed on the complex subject matter.
When it comes to documentaries assaying racial injustice, and in particular the disproportionate killing of unarmed African-Americans by police, there are, sadly, many options — a lot of which are excellent films. But Down a Dark Stairwell occupies a unique space, and tells a complex story with incredible sensitivity and balance. Directed by Ursula Liang, the film details an incident in which Akai Gurley, a black man simply visiting a friend in Brooklyn, is shot in an apartment complex stairwell by Peter Liang (no relation), a Chinese-American police officer who claims his firearm accidentally discharged. As officers fail to render aid, Gurley dies.
Coming in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the shooting and its aftermath understandably set off a firestorm of emotion, and put two different marginalized communities on a collision course. The local district attorney, Ken Thompson, decides to charge Liang in a six-count indictment, and when Liang becomes the first NYPD officer convicted of an on-duty shooting in over a decade, the fight for justice — and discussion over what that even means — threatens to boil over in advance of the sentencing.
To one side, the shooting (and the language “explaining” it) is just another example of discriminatory and abusive policing, with tragic results for too many African-Americans. To another, it’s a legitimate accident (the stairwell in which the shooting took place was dark, the result of a burnt-out lighting fixture not replaced by the building’s management), with the criminal scapegoating of Liang representing yet another example of systemic white supremacy. A smaller minority of Asian-Americans, meanwhile, vocally identify with Gurley, revealing fault-lines largely along age demographics.
Director Liang navigates this tightrope of tension and racial reckoning by way of level-headed editing and astute packaging. She locates compelling subjects, from Gurley’s aunt Hertencia to a number of Asian-American activists with deep ties to Chinatown community, and lets the story of Liang’s trial unfold naturally, through both their reaction to events, and interactions with one another. What starts out as an already complex situation becomes awash in even more shades of grey. That there are no easy answers is what makes Down a Dark Stairwell such an interesting film. The DVD, presented in 1.78.1 widescreen with optional English SDH subtitles, features 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo audio options. In addition to a trailer gallery, its bonus features consist of three deleted scenes totaling 11 minutes, plus five-and-a-half minutes of behind-the-scenes footage that showcases, among other things, the recording of a song for the movie.
If there’s any silver lining for documentary filmmakers in these highly polarized times, it’s that political docs play like catnip to a certain segment of consumer spectrum, and Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power is an easygoing and consistently engaging nonfiction biopic which benefits from both the considerable charisma and ongoing relevance of its subject. With interviewees including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Van Jones, Danny Glover, and the late John Lewis, among many others, director Abby Ginzberg’s movie shines a light on the 12-term California Congresswoman, and gives weight to values to be drawn from her fight for positive societal change, no matter how many increments it need come in.
Speaking Truth to Power begins by detailing Lee’s position as the lone voice in opposition to the authorization of unlimited military force after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks — an overly broad resolution which granted President George Bush unchecked war powers, and has subsequently been invoked 41 times by three American presidents. This “profile in courage” is lauded by colleagues who lament not standing with her, and the movie also delves into the personal cost of the vote (Lee and her family received threats on their safety) as well as her years-long effort to repeal the law.
Much of Lee’s personal brand, though, is tied to her reputation as an uncompromising advocate for progressive policies which put working people, and especially the poor, first. And her status as a pioneer in the struggle for economic and racial justice has deep roots. In the movie, Lee recounts her work on the national campaign of New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American candidate to run for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States. After that, Lee found a valuable mentor in Congressman Ron Dellums, rising up the ranks in his office from intern to chief of staff. Though she for a long time thought of herself as only a behind-the-scenes operator, Lee was eventually pushed to stand for election herself, and several years in the California State Assembly and State Senate would prepare her for her own Congressional service.
The Peabody Award-winning Ginzberg, who for two decades in her work has been examining issues of discrimination and their intersection with the law, here selects a subject who can give passionate and informed voice to those same topics. While the willful participation of Lee herself sometimes means the movie at least flirts with overly adulatory framing, Ginzberg for the most part manages to strike a savvy balance between Lee’s own recollections and the perspective of other interviewees.
The most interesting, successful, and lastingly memorable thing about Speaking Truth to Power is the forthright manner in which it connects personal biography and government policy — showcasing the ramifications of systems either corrupt or assistive, and how governmental budget allocations are indeed a type of moral document. In the end, Ginzberg’s documentary lands as an emotionally fortifying portrait of (and for) openhearted and openminded warriors for change. In Lee’s story, there is affirmation that people closest to some sort of pain or struggle in their own lives should ultimately also be closer to power, and helping shape policy. Kino Lorber’s DVD presentation of the movie, in 1.78.1 widescreen with 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo audio options, also features optional English SDH subtitles.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.